As a WIC dietitian, I spend my days working with caregivers that want to make healthy meals for their families. As a mother, I share this mission. Most of us know that we should eat vegetables – the USDA guidelines for healthy eating, aka My Plate, shows us that half of our plate should be full of vegetables and/or fruits at each meal.
So let’s get started chowing down on some raw kale and celery! Ready?!? We all know that one way to eat vegetables is to have them raw, the like earth grew them for us. It’s a healthy and good option. The other common method is to cook a vegetable and serve it alongside the rest of the meal. Another good option – dietitian approved. Many parents serve vegetables in these two ways on a regular basis. But is HALF of your dinner plate full of steamed broccoli? Do your kids eat their carrot sticks enthusiastically and ask for seconds? I hope so! But often times, the answer is no. We need to find ways to eat MORE.
What I’d like to explore are other ways to add vegetables into the things you might already cook at home or ways to sneak them in. What if they were a part of the main dish, PLUS you had a salad or steamed vegetable as a side? Now that would be a nutrition double-whammy, super-star meal! AND it’s two chances to get a vegetable into your kids (or husband/wife) instead of just one.
Here are a few of my favorite dishes to add-in extra vegetables:
At my house, the kids don’t even notice that I sauté diced zucchini (an entire zucchini) right in with the ground beef, onion and taco seasonings. It helps that one-pound package of ground beef stretch to serve all five of us easily (bonus: a zucchini is way cheaper than a second pound of beef), and my kids are getting a vegetable before they even put the lettuce, peppers or avocado on top of their tacos.
After the kids help spread the sauce it’s time for the… broccoli! Just chop it up really small, so the broccoli looks like little green confetti and sprinkle a large handful before the cheese and other toppings. You can also cut up spinach leaves to snuggle even more nutrition under that delicious blanket of cheese. If the day is too busy for home-made, try throwing a few vegetables on top of a frozen pizza before you toss it in the oven. Extra mushrooms and bell pepper are always a winning combination.
Diced zucchini could also find its way right into spaghetti sauce along with the ground turkey (or even without it for a meatless meal). Another option is broccoli confetti. But don’t throw away those broccoli stems! Cut away the outside “skin” (a potato peeler works well), chop into circles or sticks and steam or boil them – it’s just as nutritious as the tops and some kids like the different texture.
Whether home-made or from a box or can, just throw some frozen peas and carrots (really almost any frozen vegetable would work) in your soup and you’ve instantly increased the nutritional value of your quick and easy meal.
Grilled cheese sandwiches
Add a fresh slice of tomato inside or serve it with tomato soup for dipping. Other times, we add leftover (cooked and chopped) broccoli from last night’s dinner.
Lunch meat sandwiches
It only takes an extra minute to pile some lettuce, tomato or cucumber on top of the meat and cheese. Try using hummus or avocado instead of mayonnaise for a vegetable-based spread.
Mac & Cheese
Macaroni and cheese pairs classically with peas (and it rhymes). If you buy the shell-shaped noodles, the peas fit right into the shells like little pods. It’s a flavor and shape match made in heaven.
Instead of plain scrambled eggs, add in some extra nutrition and start the day with spinach and eggs with cheese. Or just throw in any leftover veggies from last night’s dinner: bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, asparagus, greens…
Eating out for a treat or on a busy night?
Come armed with some cut-up raw veggies: carrots, cucumbers or bell peppers. Give these to the kids to munch on while you wait for your food or on the drive to the restaurant – they’ll have something to do to keep them busy plus you’ll get some healthy veggies in them before the restaurant food. We make a game of who can eat the most carrot sticks before our car arrives at our favorite burger and ice cream joint. Everyone wins – Mom & Dad feel good that the kids ate something nutritious, and we all get to enjoy a treat together afterwards.
These are just a few ideas – get creative in your own kitchen! If a new way of cooking doesn’t get rave reviews at first, don’t be disheartened. Keep trying and adjust your ideas as needed. But don’t give up. Our job as caregivers is to care for our families and keep them healthy and safe. Nutrition is a big part of keeping them healthy so keep cooking, be creative and be sure your plates are half full at each meal!
Lauren Christie is a registered dietitian with Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers WIC.